TOPICS : Moderates vie for clout within Hamas

When imprisoned Palestinians from both the Hamas and Fatah factions last week issued a joint platform that calls for a Palestinian state with the “1967 boundaries,” Hamas was caught off guard. Leaders of Hamas, the Islamic militant organisation-cum-political party now at the helm of the Palestinian Authority, have said that they will not recognise Israel or endorse a two-state solution.

Reactions from the Hamas leadership ran the gamut. Several Hamas spokesman were quick to insist that the letter didn’t explicitly indicate support for a two-state solution; while others said Hamas is open to negotiation and will follow the will of the people.

Perhaps, it is no surprise that those messages sound mixed. Now more than ever, Hamas is speaking with many voices. In the past, the Hamas line was articulated by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the organisation’s spiritual leader and founder, along with a couple of other top spokesmen — several of them, along with Yassin, assassinated in recent years by Israel. Today, however, it sometimes is difficult to pinpoint Hamas policy. Hamas politicians who say Israel has no place in the Islamic Middle East are vying with voices that sound far more moderate and cooperative.

“If the people decide that they want recognition of Israel tomorrow, OK. We’ll do it and we’ll have a referendum to see if people agree,” says Ahmed Yousef, the prime minister’s adviser. Other Hamas members, however, were quick to shed doubt on the prisoners’ platform indicating support for a two-state solution. Government spokesman Ghazi Hamad says many prisoners were totally unaware of the draft. “Nobody spoke about two states in this document,” he says, “but it speaks of a solution accepting the 1967 borders,” or the creation of a Palestinian state including the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem, “and we support that.”

The prisoners’ letter is being viewed by some as a benchmark of moderation emanating from those who are usually considered to hold hardline opinions. The platform is being looked at with particular interest because it implies a kind of de-facto acceptance of a two-state solution across the two main Palestinian political movements.

Most Palestinians, according to a poll released two weeks ago, think they would fare better by working out their differences with Israel around a negotiating table than they would by dealing themselves out of and having Israel redraw its borders without Palestinian input. Just under three-quarters of Palestinians say they would prefer a negotiated solution to unilateral withdrawals, such as Israel’s pull-out from Gaza last year, pollsters at the Palestinian Centre for Public Opinion and Survey Research in Ramallah found. Yet, 59 per cent Palestinians polled say they oppose Hamas agreeing to recognise Israel now.

The Hamas officials are setting about the difficult business of governing. But under the current circumstances, democracy-building plans in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are out. — The Christian Science Monitor